GENEVA -- When the global village of automotive leaders reconvenes in the charged atmosphere of a major auto show, sensitive issues come into sharp focus.
They pop up repeatedly during press days in executive interviews and presentations of glistening launch vehicles. Sometimes they’re conspicuous by the way a company avoids them.
So let’s play three questions:
1) When does Volkswagen start to move forward?
For some time, VW will have to work through the aftereffects from its diesel-emissions cheating scandal: fractured relations with governments and diesel customers (a smaller percentage in the U.S. than in Europe). A large financial penalty will cost it money that might have been spent on new technology and new vehicles.
But VW retains significant strengths, such as its scale, engineering expertise and the loyalty of many customers who appreciate its driving characteristics, crisply styled interiors and exterior design. These are the customers, in the U.S. at least, who like getting German character at sub-BMW prices.
VW will have its large media reception tonight where executives usually proclaim accomplishments and goals. On Tuesday it introduces a subcompact crossover (apparently not U.S.-bound). It needs to use these events to show that, even as it deals with damage from the scandal, it is regaining momentum.
2) Will crossovers really take over the world?
It certainly seems that way, with production intros from VW, Audi, Opel, Toyota and a Subaru concept. And, of course, you have vehicles that would have seemed inconceivable just a few years ago -- the Bentley Bentayga, slated for U.S. sale this spring, and the Maserati Levante, appearing this week.
Although European automakers like to call such vehicles SUVs, they generally are carlike crossovers -- and therein lies their strength. They can provide higher seating and some measure of driving capability in nasty road conditions, but are not really meant for rugged off-roading. They are positioned to replace car purchases.
So what does this mean for hallowed European nameplates, ranging from the BMW 7 series (two performance variants due here) to the VW Golf, again Europe’s top-selling car last year?
3) How does autonomous drive get real?
Many component technologies for self-driving vehicles are established: adaptive cruise control, emergency braking, lane-keeping, mapping and so forth. Automakers have test fleets roaming streets, and a few production vehicles already combine those features into autonomous-light.
But several industry controversies remain: Fully self-driving vehicles (the liability lawyers’ nightmare) vs. systems that require intervention from an awake and alert driver; maps vs. sensors; steering wheel vs. no steering wheel.
To compound this, executives and their speechwriters have a weakness for dramatic-sounding predictions. In this case, several have predicted autonomous driving vehicles by 2020.
That’s a memorable-sounding year. But in terms of automotive product cycles, 2020 is tomorrow.
What will we see at Geneva that demonstrates the degree of autonomous drive technology built into production vehicles a mere four years out?